Trees – the biggest mistakes we make in the garden….

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: January 5th, 2014 In: Uncategorized

I was going to write a cheery post about the best border combinations of 2013, but two weeks of being hammered by gales have made gardening much more urgent and less reflective than it usually is at this time of year. And I can see that I have made my biggest mistakes with trees – the biggest and most slow-growing element of any garden. Three years ago we planted two tall thin holm oaks on either side of a bench, with the aim of topiarising them into neat shapes. I bought them for £50 each, as it would have cost £500 to buy them already topiarised. (One garden designer friend said ‘Oh, Alexandra, I see what you mean, but it is going to take about three hundred years for them to grow into shape).

The gales have blown both trees into matching 45 degree angles. I don’t think, however, that it will start a trend for tilted topiary. And I can’t simply to push them back up into position. They seem stuck. So I consulted a friend, Fern Alder, who is mainly known for starting Full Frontal, a community initiative for front gardens (which now features in the Chelsea fringe). She is also a Kent Tree Warden, and is passionate about trees.

holm oak blown over

One of two matching holm oaks, both blown partly over

I’d made the No 1 mistake when buying the tree

Firstly, she agreed that I had planted trees which were a bit too tall to start with. I’d made the common mistake of thinking that if I bought a bigger tree, then it would be quicker to get to where I wanted to be with it. ‘Cut about a third of the leafy top off,’ she advised. ‘No more – it’ll shock the tree too much.’ Indeed, when we planted the two holm oaks, we also planted three silver birches and three small fruit trees, all of which were just young whips at the time. They have grown substantially more than the holm oaks in the three years, and seem able to withstand the gales.

And the next most common mistake when planting it…

She then peered into the holes made on one side as the trees rocked over. She couldn’t even see any roots. ‘They seem to have been planted too deep,’ she said. ‘It’s really important to make sure that the hole you dig for a tree is no deeper than the depth of the pot it comes in. If any of the trunk is buried in soil, then it will begin to rot.’ We had, in fact, moved a lot of soil round the garden and I think it had been piled on top of the bed, thus raising the soil level around the planted tree. It’s also possible that one of the trees was quite pot-bound, with its roots curling round in the pot: ‘sometimes that means they just keep going round,’ said Fern.

Our choice is now between digging the trees up and re-planting them (not easy, and not, in Fern’s view, necessarily the best approach as the roots further down may be well established), or taking away some soil around them, pushing them up into place (very strong men will be needed) and weighting it down on one side with bricks or stone.  She also gave me some mycorrizal funghi to encourage the roots to re-grow. And, although the trees were secured with a stout stake, it would have been better to secure them with two, one on each side – which is how many newly-planted trees now seem to be secured in the countryside now.

At least now I can see why the advice in books is worth following…

The weather is still too awful for us to go out, but we need to do the repairs as quickly as possible. And, for the future, I need to remember, firstly, that it’s a false economy to buy a tree that is already too big and, secondly, that planting a tree is not just about sticking it in the ground. It needs to be the right depth, properly supported, and, if the roots are beginning to curl round because it is pot-bound, they either need untangling, or you need to buy another tree.

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